“A very particular feeling of nostalgia and melancholy, characteristic of a certain type of Portugueseness, permeates the city and its people, imparting a permanent yearning for an unfulfilled past. It is a city of contrasts – a constant interplay of light and shadow, young and old, hope and decay, crumbling walls and spaces waiting to be taken over. It is a place where beauty appears to lie not at the surface, but within – separated from the neglected exterior, removed yet not forgotten, cultivated for the intimacy of the few.”
– Miguel Moore –
On a balmy spring afternoon, I found myself in the uber cool café, Fauna & Flora, not far from my Airbnb apartment, trying to get my head around the new vocabulary and grammar structures of the Portuguese language. At the time, I was almost a week into my two and a half week stay in Lisbon. Immersed in a language course, I walked its streets in my free hours in search of interesting corners, and a good cup of coffee. Although my eyes were focused on the words in front of me, my ears were tuned into a conversation to my left. Instead of me eavesdropping on the chic young Portuguese, who frequent the place, it was a conversation between two middle-aged American women that captured my attention. They were discussing the advantages of basing themselves in Lisbon, the hip venues, the weather, the people, their freelance jobs, their travels. They eventually reached the conclusion, as one of them put it, that “Lisbon is more bohemian than Paris”.
It comes as no surprise then that Lisbon ranks fifth on the recently published Global Hipster Index. Created by relocation specialist, Movehub, it is in its second year, and for the first time, also includes cities outside America. It is a fun, tongue-in-cheek look at our obsession with lists and indexes, making use of five data points to create their list of hipness: vegan eateries, coffee shops, tattoo studios, vintage boutiques, and record stores.
Despite my love for funky coffee shops, which abounds in Lisbon, a quick look at the list clearly disqualifies me as being much of a ‘hipster’. As a vegetarian I did not have to go out in search of vegan restaurants, as I found a great variety of choices in the restaurants I visited in my neighbourhood. Although I hardly ever frequent vintage boutiques, I did buy a cute satin jacket in a rather quaint vintage boutique I passed daily on the way to class, which I guess could score me a point or two. Yet, I failed to notice any record stores on my daily walks, which, granted, mainly took me to quieter alleyways, and even though I vaguely recall passing two tattoo studios, having no desire to express myself in that manner, I simply admired the giant tattoos on the city’s walls, created by graffiti and street artists.
I adore street art. Mostly done on commission, or at least with permission, it often brightens tired walls in neighbourhoods that have seen more prosperous days, and can even serve as alternative advertisements. Seen by some as a gentrified form of graffiti, I love how a city’s walls can be transformed into giant canvasses for artistic expression to the delight of passersby. Lisbon’s walls not only display beautiful image-based street art, but also a jumble of word-based graffiti using tags or symbols. It mostly feels organic, raw, impulsive. Love it or hate it, it is an integral part of this multi-layered city. And as artist, PJ Sierra puts it, “. . . whether you’re a graffiti writer or a street artist, your goal is the same: To prove we existed on this earth by leaving our mark.”
Art doesn’t just adorn the walls, but one also walks on it, wherever one goes in Lisbon. The typical Portuguese pavements, or calçada portuguesa artística, is wonderfully decorative, and reminds one in a subtle way that the Roman empire once stretched all the way to this part of the world. This imaginative way of paving large squares and pavements is said to have originated in 1842 at the Saint Jorge Castle in Lisbon, when it was paved with white limestone pebbles with a zigzag pattern of black basalt stone, by its governor, Lieutenant General Candido Pinheiro Eusebio Furtado.
No matter where one goes in Lisbon, there is a constant reminder of the past, be it in the grandeur of some of its buildings, or the tiles, azulejos, which adorn both outside and inside walls, floors, and ceilings. Harking back to a time, when the Iberian Peninsula was occupied by the Moors, it has become such an integral part of Portuguese architecture and character that many of my walks were directed solely at photographing the various designs and colours.
Soaking in the soul of the city, through the soles of my feet, and noticing the exquisite in the small details, often overlooked by haste and inattention, is what I will remember Lisbon most for. No matter what you enjoy or are interested in, Lisbon will have something special just for you, if you allow her to cast her web of charms over you. Take your time to discover her pulse, and don’t just follow in the hollowed-out footsteps of the crowds.
Visited: April 2018
* The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon by Philip Graham
* The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
Want to learn Portuguese in Lisbon?
Visit Lisbon Language Café. Their courses are excellent value for money.